Waiouru - the home of the New Zealand Army - has become a smaller home over the last 10 years but it is still important, its former commander says.
From 2011 until his retirement from the New Zealand Defence Force in February last year Major Patrick Hibbs was in charge of the army camp and its training area. During those years its population reduced from 3500 to about 650 people, with only 200 of those in uniform.
The number of houses that go with the military camp reduced from 650 to 210, with many sold and trucked out of town.
"You could get a beautiful four-bedroom rimu house shipped off for $40,000 to $60,000," Hibbs said.
The camp also has 1200 beds in barracks and the officers' mess building for recruits as they pass through and for the Singaporean soldiers who train during the summer.
What was once the place where army recruits learned trades like engineering, transport, signals and catering now only trains new groups of territorial and regular army recruits in seven intakes of 14 to 16 weeks each a year, and an officer training school with a maximum of 65.
It lost its little shopping centre, its golf course and its pony club along with the unneeded houses.
But it was still the home of the New Zealand Army because all of the troops and officers spend time there, Hibbs said.
The training schools were moved south to places near large centres, so the partners of soldiers could get jobs. Waiouru is a tiny town of about 200, with harsh winter weather. The NZDF found it hard to get people to live there.
Yet it was a place of great heart, Hibbs said, and exit interviews with people leaving had been positive.
"Well into 90 per cent said it was the best posting they had ever had.
"You are there with your kids, with one job, in a community that's tight as tight.
"That's the story of Waiouru - how tight it can be."
HIbbs joined the NZDF at 15 and spent 40 years in uniform. He's been posted to Singapore, Malaysia, Sinai and Bougainville, and been an instructor to young soldiers. He remembers the "fantastic" life at Waiouru in earlier years, with frisbee golf played from the hilltop by the officers' mess.
"I was a father to 70 young men and women who were full of oats."
Later, as camp commander, he had a lot of freedom. By that time the camp was mainly run by five major contractors, with their staff living in houses leased from the NZDF.
"In order to make it work I decided really early on that everybody that was left in Waiouru had to be made to feel that they were important - including everybody that was here in the workforce.
"Everybody was the same."
He kept the houses clustered around the school and camp, and instituted barbecues that became annual and involved everyone.
He suggested Waiouru Training Facility as a name for the place, and was told there was no way he was getting away with WTF as its acronym. It became Waiouru Military Training Facility.
What sets the place apart is its "magnificent" 63,000ha training area, with its purpose-built ranges. Soldiers can do practically anything there, from dropping a bomb from an aircraft to shooting a rifle.
That freedom is the reason Singapore spends $8 million a year to send up to 600 soldiers and their equipment to train every summer. They first came in 1997 for a place to shoot howitzers.
The Central Plateau's evil weather was probably one of the best things about the training area, Hibbs said.
"A very simple military test becomes a matter of life or death because of the weather.
"Anybody that would go through Waiouru could survive in most places."
The Kaimanawa wild horse herd has been whittled down from 700 to 300 by successive musters, and the horses are now healthier. They sometimes watch soldiers training from hilltops.
A northern section of the training area is home to about 15 of New Zealand's most endangered plants. Soldiers do not train there, and the horses prefer the gentler southern area.
The training area comes into the rohe of three tribes, Ngāti Tuwharetoa, Ngāti Rangi and Mōkai Pātea. Some places on it are sacred to them.
There were safety issues when Ngāti Rangi people visited those places on Mt Ruapehu during army training. Hibbs asked for advance warning of the visits, and sent soldiers to escort the people.
"We went up into the mountain and were gifted information from them. As a result we became part of the Ruapehu Whānau Transformation Plan. We worked hand in glove with them.
"That's probably the most inclusive and progressive people that I have worked with. Beautiful."
Ngāti Rangi achieved its Treaty of Waitangi settlement in 2018, and the time leading up to it was very interesting, Hibbs said.
The iwi agreed the NZDF could carry on using its land for training for the defence of the nation. It was given the former New Zealand Royal Navy Communication Station, HMNZS Irirangi, in the settlement but vested it back with the NZDF in "a lovely ceremony".
The three tribes agreed to move a marae within the camp. It was now the hub of the place, Hibbs said.
"Every officer and cadet has to come through the marae. We're multilingual and multicultural."
In 2015 a marae garden was built in three days, with an area set aside for reflection. Its central stone was surrounded by seven pou, representing the seven canoes that settled this country. An eighth was added for "Ngāti Smith".
"The traditional carvers doing the marae gave a pou for the white guys," Hibbs said.
One lively part of the camp is its newish $10 million school. Its roll is 130 and growing.
The houses that remain have a uniform Housing New Zealand look, set among mown grass and trees. The atmosphere was similar to a hydro town, Hibbs said.
Visitors to the camp have to register as they pass through a gate. The speed limit inside is 30km/h. A lot of the buildings within have been refreshed from their 1940s and 50s origins.
The single storey and seven-level officers' mess building has pride of place, cascading its levels down a hill.
Outside that there's a small airfield where helicopters come and go, some shooting ranges and wild rolling hills covered in tussock.
New recruits have three days to absorb "the shock of capture" and decide whether the military life is really for them. By the end of their training about 10 per cent have left.
About two-thirds of the officers in training will graduate. The rest can become regular soldiers or give up on military life.
The young instructors who arrive for their two-year postings had adjustment to make, Hibbs said.
"They arrive in summer time and are inducted into Waiouru on several levels. First, the hospital is in Whanganui. Second, the house is heated by fire.
"We then start seeing people getting into working bees, and we put on chainsaw courses."
Hibbs still has many friends in the camp. After his retirement he moved to Motuoapa on Lake Taupō for the fishing life. He's now a semi-retired "Lakes Nazi" for the Department of Internal Affairs.
The new commander of Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) is Colonel Trevor Walker. He arrived in December from a Wellington job looking after reserve forces, youth and sport and, as an exchange officer, was the deputy commander of a United States infantry division in Hawaii before that.
His return to Waiouru was like a homecoming, he said. It's his fifth time there, and one of his three children was born in Taihape during a previous stint.
He expected to enjoy the place, and had found its people very motivated. He intended to continue using the place to train New Zealand soldiers and officers for the New Zealand Army.
Waiouru was "absolutely" still the home of the New Zealand Army, he said.
"If you want to join, you still have to go through Waiouru. It's our premier military training area for any exercise for soldiers.
"It's a jewel in the crown of the Army, a magnificent, diverse and tough training area."
Over the next 10 years, old buildings and social amenities in the camp will need investment. Decisions will be made on that later this year. Walker doesn't think it is likely to grow.
"I can't see it getting bigger, but I think it's about the right size."
Ruapehu mayor Don Cameron said changes at the camp have had less impact on the district than expected. Its reduced numbers of soldiers had been made up for by the increased number of contractors there.
The place has its own rules, but it is very much part of the district. Community meetings held there and get a good turnout in the hall.
"We have a good relationship with the Army, and we do meet with them fairly regularly. We have been lucky that the camp commanders have been co-operative and very helpful," Cameron said.
As to the camp's future, he said it was used by Singaporean, United States and Malaysian forces, as well as New Zealand ones.
"I don't think it's going to disappear in a hurry," he said.